Curing Plant Problems by Discovering Their Causes

A reader tells me this column doesn’t give enough practical information on killing bugs.
In most cases, people who garden for more than a few years – as long as they have minimal curiosity – find ways of doing things so that they have minimal problems with bugs or any other pests.
But curiosity is not a characteristic that can be taken for granted in human beings. When people get headaches, nowadays, they are interested only in which pill most quickly takes the headache away, rather than in what actually caused the headache. When people used to come upon hard times or have accidents, lose their livelihood or injure themselves, they wondered how they had erred in the eyes of God; they examined their behavior and their souls to discover what it was about themselves that needed improvement. Today, adversity is not a call for self-examination, but rather a prelude to government assistance or litigation.
What is true in the world at large usually has repercussions in the garden. Walk into any nursery and notice all the fertilizers and sprays and bags of stuff – all the potions, lotions and notions designed to correct garden problems or plant deficiencies. “If something went wrong, there’s got to be a product out there to make it right,” thinks the simple-minded gardener.
But if you have scales of mealy bugs, for example, which attach themselves to plants that don’t get enough light or air circulation, killing the current batch of scales or mealy bugs will not permanently solve your problem. In a few months – certainly in a year – those insects will be back. To make some real progress in control of these pests, you will have to thin out the infested plants or, in severe cases, even prune them back close to the ground; also, you may have to prune or remove surrounding plants to allow in two critical elements – light and air alone can permanently discourage the proliferation of scales and mealy bugs.
Just like the recurring headache that comes back whether you swallow Tylenol or Advil – because the stress that brings the headache never goes away – a plant problem will linger as long as the conditions that created it are present.
Two books that try to solve gardeners’ problems have been published recently. One is “The Budget Gardener: Twice the Garden for Half the Price” (Penguin Books; $13.95) by Maureen Gilmer; the other is “The New Northern Gardener” (Firefly Books; $24.95) by Jennifer Bennett.
“The Budget Gardener” is full of quizzical ideas for saving money. The whole book somehow does not ring true; it’s as though Gilmer has read a lot and spoken to many people, perhaps even given horticultural advice, but never personally stuck a spading fork into the earth. Some of her ideas are misleading or potentially detrimental to the garden and its plants.
For instance, she recommends adding sand to a heavy clay soil to make it lighter and more porous. Sand added to clay soil has been known to turn it into cement. To save time, Gilmer recommends using electric hedge shears as opposed to hand-held shears. While this statement is obviously correct, her assertion that the power shears do a better job than the hand shears is not. In fact, no power garden tool does a better job than a hand or people-powered tool.
In the words of Hugh Johnson, “the essence of gardening is control,” and use of power tools, although labor-saving, always diminishes your control; they simply move too fast and end up cutting where they shouldn’t.
Gilmer also advocates such discredited tree maintenance practices as sealing pruning cuts (which prevents oxygen from reaching and healing cut surfaces), and using baling wire looped through old hose pieces to stake trees (which may lead to girdling and tree death).
“The New Northern Gardener” was written by a Canadian for people in cold climates with a growing season that lasts just four months, from mid-May to mid-September. (See how lucky we are!) Outside of this time frame – if you should find yourself gardening, let’s say in Buffalo, N.Y. – frost may strike and turn your vegetables and flowers into mush. Yet even Southern Californians can learn from this volume, since there is still a three-month winter here that restricts the growing season somewhat. Raised beds and transparent plastic tunnels will extend the fall season considerably and, in our climate, perhaps prevent the arrival of winter altogether.
Tip: According to University of Arkansas research, the life of cut roses can be extended by using either of the following two concoctions: 1 teaspoon vinegar, 1 aspirin tablet and 1 tablespoon sugar; or 1 teaspoon vinegar, 1/2 tablespoon bleach and 1 tablespoon sugar. Amounts are per three cups of water.

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